The National Archives Logo
Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 29
Last updated: 9 December 2010

1. Why use this guide?

This guide indicates the significant National Archives record series for researching British propaganda from 1914 to 1980, and it provides useful background information and suggestions for further reading.

2. Essential information

The National Archives holds many records relating to propaganda during the 20th century. However, not all are easily searchable in Discovery, our catalogue, and you might have to try a number of searches to uncover the material you are looking for. One online resource you can use is The Cabinet Papers 1915 - 1979 - try searching under the keyword 'propaganda'.

3. The First World War, 1914-1918

From 1914 to 1916 news, censorship, and propaganda work was carried out by a number of government departments and agencies, often with overlapping activities.

·         The War Office Directorate of Military Operations department MI7 and the Admiralty circulated reports and propaganda to the press in military zones. Discussion of propaganda techniques is in INF 4, with examples and descriptions of MI7's work in INF 4/4B and INF 4/1B.

·         The Foreign Office News Department carried out propaganda work abroad. From early 1916 it coordinated the propaganda work of departments in allied and neutral countries. Records for 1914-1915 are in FO 371, and for 1916-1939 in FO 395. There is a card index and registers in FO 566 and FO 662 up to 1920, and after 1920, printed indexes which can all be consulted in the reading rooms of The National Archives at Kew.

·         The War Propaganda Bureau produced publications for use in allied and neutral countries

·         The Neutral Press Committee was set up as an advisory body in September 1914. It included newspaper proprietors and journalists and later provided information services to the neutral press

In February 1917 these bodies merged, forming the Department of Information, which then became the Ministry of Information in March 1918.

The Political Intelligence Bureau (records in FO 371) had already transferred to the Foreign Office, and the Enemy Propaganda Bureau to Lord Northcliffe's Crewe House Committee.

From February 1918 the Department of Propaganda in Enemy Countries reported directly to the War Cabinet.

The Ministry took over responsibility for photographs and films from the War Office. Department and Ministry maintained missions abroad. INF 4 contains examples of the files and work of First World War propaganda departments.

4. The inter-war years

In November 1918 the Ministry of Information was dissolved. The Foreign Office News Department regained responsibility for overseas information and publicity (records in FO 395).

A Dominions Information Department was established in 1926 to supply information on foreign policy to the dominions; its records are in FO 372 (1926-1928) and FO 627 (1929-1933). In 1933 it was replaced by the Colonial Office and Dominions Office Public Relations branch (records in FO 372).

Other examples of colonial propaganda may be found in records of the Colonial Office on a country-by-country basis. CO 956 holds copies of posters issued by the Empire Marketing Board, 1927-1933. The Service Departments had set up press offices shortly after the war; DEFE 1 contains examples of work and discussions on propaganda.

From 1934 the British Council fostered educational and cultural links with other countries. Its records are in the BW record series. Records of the British Council section of the Foreign Office are in FO 370. This became the Cultural Relations Department in 1944 (records in FO 924, index in FO 409). The British Council photographic collection is in INF 11. Confidential print relating to cultural propaganda for the inter-war years is in FO 431.

The BBC was encouraged to set up an Empire Service in English in 1932 and a British External Broadcasting Service in 1938. For examples see the BBC Archives.

In 1936 a planning team was set up under the Committee of Imperial Defence to make plans for a Ministry of Information and publicity services in the event of war; papers are in INF 1 and INF 4.

5. The Second World War, 1939-1945

The Ministry of Information had responsibility for news and press censorship, home publicity and propaganda in allied and neutral countries from September 1939. Papers and examples of its work are in INF 1, INF 2 (a full set of the publicity material issued) and INF 3 (a complete set of original artwork - view selected images in The National Archives' online exhibition, Art of war). A News Division issued material to the home and overseas press, news agencies and the BBC. In allied and neutral countries the Ministry was responsible for information policy and publicity, absorbing the Foreign Publicity Department of the FO. Examples of this work are in FO 898/426, FO 898/486-528 and FO 898/549-553. Publicity files between 1938 and 1947 are in FO 930.

The Foreign Office News Department adopted an information and liaison role. The Crown Film Unit transferred to the Ministry in April 1940 and produced films publicising emergency campaigns and information on wartime events and measures. Records of the film units are in INF 5, INF 6 and INF 12.

Crown Film Unit and Army Kinematography Unit publicity films are held in the British Film Institute National Archive. Files of the Ministry of Information Publications Division are in INF 14. In addition FO 371 contains many examples of overseas propaganda, year by year.

In August 1941 the Political Warfare Executive was formed by an amalgamation of parts of the European sections of the BBC and of the Foreign Publicity Department of the Ministry of Information with Special Operations I, formerly the propaganda section of the Special Operations Executive (records in HS record series). A re-organisation took place in 1942, and a Directorate of Plans and Propaganda Campaigns was formed under a Planning and Policy Committee to plan, initiate and supervise political warfare and propaganda campaigns. This responsibility passed to the Ministry as countries were liberated and the Executive was finally wound up in 1946. Its records are in FO 898 , press summaries of foreign material are in FO 899 and directives are in FO 371.  There are further, supplementary, records in FO 954 (also known as the Eden Papers). You can download images of the Eden Papers from our website.

Minutes of the Inter-Allied Information Committee, 1940-1943, are in INF 1. Reports and discussion of its work and the possible creation of a United Nations Information Board are FO 371 (1943). FO 371 also contains interesting material, year by year, including the creation of a German-language newspaper for émigrés in 1941 (FO 371/26554).

6. Post 1945

At the end of the war the Ministry was wound up and its "engagements" transferred to the new Central Office of Information, which maintained the previous division between home and overseas publicity. Overseas publicity was concerned with cultural, educational and trade operations. The overseas divisions included exhibitions, films and television, overseas press services, radio and reference. Divisional reports are in INF 8; publicity material issued by the COI is in INF 2 and INF 13; files of the Crown Film Unit are in INF 5; some personal files are in INF 21; staff lists are in INF 22. See FO 953 for examples of Foreign Office publicity from 1947. The Control Commission for Germany played a role in education and propaganda: see FO 946, FO 1050 and FO 1056.

The Information Research Department was set up in 1946 under the Foreign Office to help counter Russian/Stalinist expansion, propaganda and infiltration, both in Britain and abroad, particularly amongst the western labour movement. Records of its work are in FO 1110 and reports are in FO 975.

Records of the Information Policy Department including Information and Propaganda policy concerning the USSR and its satellite states, covering the years 1947-1966, are in FO 953.

7. Empire and Commonwealth information and propaganda services, post-1945

CO 537, Colonial Office Confidential General and Confidential Original Correspondence contains much material relating to "Communist" and Anti-Communist propaganda in the post-War period, partly on a country-by-country basis but there are also documents relating to overall policy issues. CO 1027 contains the registered files of the Colonial Office Information Department, 1952-1967.

Other series between them contain a lot of useful supplementary material relating to information and propaganda in the colonies and ex-colonies:

·         CO 875 contains records of the Colonial Office Public Relations Department, later the Information Department, 1940-1952, relating to publicity and propaganda concerning the colonies

·         Registered files of the Colonial Office: Intelligence and Security Departments, covering the years 1954-1965 are in CO 1035. These deal with matters relating to the security of British colonies and colonial intelligence matters

·         CO 1035/117 Proposal to use Information Research Department (IRD) material to counter Communist propaganda in colonies, 1956

There is further material on a country by country basis in the record series for individual countries.

·         Records of the Commonwealth Relations Office and Commonwealth Office's Information Policy Department 1957-1966 are in DO 191

·         Registered files of the Commonwealth Relations Department, 1961-1966, are in DO 192

·      Registered files of the Commonwealth Relations Office and Commonwealth Office: News Department,1960-1967, are in DO 194

·         Records of the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices Information, News and Guidance Departments, 1967-1980, are in FCO 26

8. Further reading

Louise Atherton, 'Never complain, never explain': Records of the Foreign Office and State Paper Office 1500-c.1960, PRO Reader's Guide No. 7 (PRO Publications, 1994)

M Sanders and PM Taylor, British propaganda during the First World War (Macmillan,1982)

Balfour, Propaganda in war, 1939-1945 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978) 

IRD, origins and establishment, Information Research Department 1946-1948, History notes No. 9, Historians in Libraries and Records Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (August 1995)

W J West, Truth betrayed: Radio politics between the wars (Duckworth, 1987)

Garth S Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell, Propaganda and persuasion (Sage Publications, fourth edition, 2006)

James Chapman, The British at war: Cinema, state and propaganda, 1939-45 (Cinema and society) (IB Taurus New Edition, 2003)

Susan L Carruthers, The media at war: Communication and conflict in the twentieth century (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

Andrew Defty, Britain, America and anti-Communist propaganda, 1945-1953: Propaganda 1945-1958 (Cass Series - Studies in Intelligence) (Routledge, first edition, 2004)

Philip M Taylor, British propaganda in the twentieth century: Selling democracy (Edinburgh University Press, 1999)

Philip M Taylor, Munitions of the mind: A history of propaganda from the ancient world to the present day (Manchester University Press, third edition, 2003)

Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 29

Our catalogue

Search descriptions of 20 million documents from the UK central government, law courts and other national bodies.